A gardener friend recently gave me a few pinches of wild Italian arugula seed, Rucola selvatica, the most fantastic arugula I have ever seen or tasted. The leaves are peppery and pungent yet delicate, unlike the hairy self-seeder I inherited at my community garden plot from its former resident. I can't wait to grow those seeds into salads; fortunately, I don't have to wait until next year to get started.
Contrary to popular belief, spring is not the only season for planting. In fact, arugula is one of several crops that actually prefer conditions at the end of the growing season, when the climate shifts to progressively cooler temperatures.
By contrast, trying to grow arugula and other tender, leafy greens as the summer heat rises is an exercise in futility. The leaves grow bitter and tough (if they grow much at all) and the plants rush to produce seeds like their life depends on it.
And that's because it does. Just like us, plants get rather antsy about procreating before their time comes. Living with the stress of heat and drought signals cool-loving plants to get on with the business of reproduction sooner rather than later. Root veggies suffer a similar fate. They go straight to the flower-making stage, completely skipping the part you want most, the bulbous root.
The good news is that the end of summer isn't the end of the gardening season but the beginning of another chance to reap further rewards from your garden before the year is out.
When to sow a late-season crop depends on how long that plant takes to reach maturity. To begin, check the number of "Days to Harvest" listed on the back of the seed packet. For example, arugula takes about 40 days. Tack on a week or two to the total time to account for the slower growth rate of plants as the days and nights get progressively cooler. Next, calculate the sow date by subtracting the total number of days from the "First Frost Date" for your region (www.almanac.com provides listings).
Fast-growing lettuce, spinach, chard, radicchio, endive, mâche and mustard greens can be sown into September or later if you're on the West Coast. Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, collards, peas, beets, carrots, parsnips and radishes love the last half of the growing season. When to sow varies wildly among veggies, so calculate individually.
Sow annual herbs including basil, cilantro, pansy and viola seeds right now. Better yet, speed the process up and double your bounty by taking cuttings from basil, mint, oregano, rosemary and other herbs that sprout roots easily in a glass of water.
Early fall is also one of the best times to make a permanent home in the edible garden for hardy perennial herbs, fruit bushes and trees. The cooler season is much more forgiving on new transplants and gives the roots a chance to get established before the winter forces the plant into dormancy. It just so happens that most garden stores are eager to get rid of their stock in the fall. Take advantage of end-of-the-season sales to get big discounts on oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, sorrel, mint, blueberries, strawberries, currant bushes, grapes and apple, plum, peach and pear trees. While the bounty will be meagre to nothing this year, you'll get a bumper crop of fresh herbs in the earliest spring straight through to the following winter and beyond.
For more gardening tips, visit Gayla Trail's website, www.yougrowgirl.com.